Making friends is hard. Making close friendships among men is even harder… and yet as we get older, it’s something we need more of. As we get older, men tend to have fewer and fewer close male friendships, even as we crave it more. While it’s taboo to say out loud – it tends too close to being femme for toxic masculinity – men want the same emotional intimacy, support and and closeness from masculine friendships that women have with their friends.
Ironically, we don’t have this problem when we’re younger; making friends, even close friends, comes more naturally to us when we’re kids. But as we get older, we tend to have that skill drilled out of us.
As friends drift away or lives change as we get older, we’re left with a growing emotional void. It’s one of the perversities of getting older for men that our need for emotional intimacy doesn’t change but the outlets we have for that intimacy shrink. Because we fear the consequences of being open and vulnerable to others, we tend to rely on our romantic partners for emotional needs. Intimacy becomes something shared between lovers, not between friends and so closeness between men takes on romantic overtones.
We joke about “bromances” between two close male friends, with the teasing undertones of “there must be something there even if you won’t admit it.” Even when the social condemnation – the implicit “no homo” – is taken out, audiences still tend to interpret close friendships between men1 as being romantic.
Needless to say: people worry that in trying to make friends, they’ll be seen as trying to make a move instead. And so the skill – and opportunities to exercise it – wither away.
And so we end up alone in crowds; dozens or even hundreds of connections on social media but nobody to prop us up when disaster strikes.
So how do men relearn how to find and foster closer, more emotional friendships with other men?
Embrace Weak Ties
Making friends as children is almost shockingly easy; we tend to just fall into it without even thinking. We tend to find people who like similar things to those we do and boom, job’s done.
As adults… it’s harder. We don’t have as many opportunities to meet people for the sole purpose of making friends as we do in school and college. Similarly, it’s hard to find people who’re in the same basic place we are in life; even at our jobs, there tends to be a mish-mash of folks just starting out and those who’re well established and building families. As anyone who’s tried to have a conversation with folks 10 years apart in age can tell you: at times it can feel like you’re both speaking different languages. Part of what helps foster friendships are those shared experiences and similarities, after all.
“Remember you said that the next time you want me to explain how Facebook isn’t Google, gramps.”
More often than not, we’re good at making acquaintances, rather than friends – those weak ties and casual connections where we couldn’t really call it “friendship” but can at least have a conversation on occasion.
And that’s good, because that’s where you start. Making those casual connections is how you get to know more people. After all, much as with dating, you can’t always pick who you will and won’t get along with with 100% accuracy. You may think your coworker is funny and you like similar things, but you and he may just not click on the deeper issues. Other times, you’ll meet someone almost at random and the two of you will get along like a house on fire.
Embracing those weak ties – networking for friends, if you will – is part of what gives you the opportunity to make and foster closer friendships. You’re broadening your social circle, which gives you the opportunity to meet more people. And while those people may be casual acquaintances to start out, you may find that you (and they) change over time as you get to know one another.
Find Pretexts For Bonding
Part 0f what makes it hard for men to build closer friendships with other men is that male friendships tend to be focused around activities, rather than on friendship for its own sake. The focus is on the activity rather than connecting; in some cases, connecting and self-disclosure is actively disdained except with this excuse. This pretext – the idea that you’re coming together to do stuff rather than chat and share – helps to diffuse the fear of being too feminine or romantic. You’re getting together to drink beers, not share gossip and intimacies like a couple of chicks! The implicit heteronormativity of playing Madden ’16 with your bro or the violence of Mortal Kombat or Call of Duty makes it ok for a couple of dudes to hang out together; it’s the pretext they can point to, lest they be seen as dating.
That’s no small part why so many sources of surrogate brotherhood tends to come in the context of being part of an in-group – especially one focused around a suitably “manly” pursuit. Fraternities, for example, provide that social pretext that allows their members to let down their guard and foster intimacy. Members of motorcycle clubs will be ok with opening up to their brothers, because it comes in the context of unquestionable masculinity that lets them feel safer to open up without being misunderstood. Their masculinity and sexuality can’t be questioned because of these unquestionably masculine-coded activities they share!
As much as we may want to be able to find people who we can connect with just for the sake of fostering that bond, it’s frequently easier to convert a weak tie to a strong one through shared activities. That’s why one of the best places to find and make close friendships is through leveraging your interests. Finding groups via MeetUp or joining social organizations like sports leagues, clubs or church organizations are all ways of finding people who enjoy the same things you do and are open to being social. Those commonalities encourage that feeling of “we’re the same”, while the context of the activity helps people feel secure enough to let their guard down enough to share and bond.
You can also establish your own groups to help foster those bonds and develop those friendships. Getting co-workers together for regular drinks after works, a tabletop gaming group, a supper-club, a podcast, a weekly poker night, a monthly beer exchange amongst enthusiasts… these are all simple ways of starting to strengthen your connections with people and turning those acquaintances into friends and friends into intimates.
The Key To A Stronger Friendship: Repetition and Regularity
One of the most important factors when it comes to creating and fostering a more intimate friendship is simply time. It’s very rare that we become close friends right off the bat; more often than not, a close, intimate friendship is built over time. The more time you spend with someone, the closer you become. You become known, familiar and comfortable, an established part of the person’s life and vice-versa. This is known as propinquity; the more time you spend with someone, the more likely you are to keep spending time with them.
This is no small part of why it’s so much easier to make friends when you’re younger; being in school together means you’re going to be seeing the same people over and over again. They become part of your daily life, so the outgrowth of your friendship feels natural and effortless. So it is with romantic relationships: the number of dates you go on, the amount of time you spend with them affects how much more likely you are to go from being single to “Facebook official”. If you think back over your various relationships – both romantic and platonic – you’ll discover how often propinquity has been a factor in them.
So if you want to get closer with people, you want to spend more time with them. However, as we get older, it’s not always as simple as calling your buddy and asking if they want to hang out. Work and responsibilities pile up early and often; as much as you may want to go grab some beers or or go see that movie together, you or they may not have the flexibility to just drop everything and go.
That’s why it’s better to have regular, scheduled activities together. Trying to just freestyle your get-togethers when the mood strikes might feel more natural but it can actually work against you. Because of the vagaries of life, you may have a lot of contact early on but find that it peters out over time. Those long stretches between seeing one another can negate the effect of the brief-but-intense moments of hanging out together. If you quiz people whose friendships have simply dwindled through nobody’s fault of their own, you’ll often find that it just became harder and harder to get together. One thing becomes another and before you realize it, you haven’t seen each other in weeks, months or even years.
Regularly scheduled activities, on the other hand, are easier to maintain. When, say, you have a weekly poker night or a monthly get together at a restaurant, it’s much easier to make it fit into your schedule. You have advance notice, so you’re able to prioritize it while you make other plans, make arrangements so that you’re free that night or otherwise make sure that you’ll be able to be there. And if you can’t make it one time, you’ll know for sure when you’re going to see them again instead of waiting for a time when the fates align for the both of you.
Small, regular get-togethers are better for building a close, emotional friendship because it keeps things paced and steady, as opposed to brief bursts of intense connection followed by long periods of disconnect that bleed the emotional momentum.
Make The First Move
One of the mistakes that people make when they’re trying to build a friendship is expecting perfect reciprocity.
Confused? Don’t be; it happens more often than you’d expect.
See, one of the things that frustrates us when we’re trying to build and maintain friendships, especially ones that we wish would be more intimate, is the idea that it’s going to be perfectly equal. Occasionally we’ll hit that moment when we realize that we’re the ones doing most of the work – we’re the one making the plans most of the time, we’re the ones making the calls to our friends to get together, etc. And when we do realize it, it can often feel like our soul’s just gotten a sudden kick in the balls.
Suddenly, everything we took for granted is now up in the air. Are they really our friends? Are they only hanging out with us out of a sense of obligation? If we stopped making the first move, would we just drift apart?
In an ideal world, everybody involved would be putting in equal levels of work in maintaining a friendship. In practice however, things get messier. One thing that rarely gets brought up when it comes to friendships is that there tends to be a dominant partner – the one who’s more “in charge” than others. They tend to be the planner and instigator and the one who does much of the work to get everyone together.This doesn’t necessarily mean that the friendship is unequal or that one person cares more than the other; it’s simply part of the dynamic of the friendship. We get used to the rhythm and the roles and so we don’t stop to think about it.
Other times, it’s less of a case of not caring or not putting the work in and more of simple insecurity and being unsure. We all tend to assume we’re the only ones who don’t know what they’re doing. While the rest of the world has its shit together, we’re sitting there, making it up as we go and praying to whatever gods might be listening that nobody ever calls us on it. The thing is: everybody tends to feel that way too. Just as you are worrying what your friend is thinking about how often you ask to hang out, they often are thinking the same way about you. They tend to have the same anxieties about how other people feel about them, telling themselves the same stories of how they’re probably annoying people and don’t want to bother them unless they’re 100% sure it’s ok.
As a result: you’ve got two people who’ve accidentally started playing Friendship Chicken. Now instead of just taking the initiative, they’re waiting for the other person to signal that it’s OK and make those plans. And then the phone never rings and people tend to drift apart.
To be sure: there are people out there who stay in relationships of all kinds out of emotional momentum and will disappear as soon as the motivating force does. But those relationships tend to fall apart on their own, regardless of what happens. People who care about their friends will tend to invest in ways other than just being the initiator.
So, if you want to maintain and grow that friendship, quit worrying about keeping things perfectly equal. Worry less about who’s investing more or who cares more based on who makes the plans and be The One Who Makes The Plans, especially in the beginning. You’ll be happier in the long-run, and as you grow closer, everybody will feel more empowered to take the initiative.
But speaking of making the first move…
Be The Friend You Want To Have
One of the sad commentaries of the state of masculinity today is how afraid we are of opening up and asking for intimacy. It’s often seen as sign of weakness and men aren’t allowed to be weak. It’s a “feminine” trait (these days that is; look through history and you’ll find male friendships that were tighter and more intimate than most heterosexual marriages) and men aren’t allowed to be anything less than manly for fear of losing their man-card. And god forbid you risk being seen as possibly flirting with someone instead of just trying to be their friend. As a result: we tend to keep up those barriers that keep us apart lest we give off “the wrong signals”. Even if that means losing out on the very kind of relationships we want.
So if you want to have a closer, more emotionally intimate friendship with your guy friends, you’re going to have to lead by example. Most men tend to look to others for what’s “allowed” or acceptable; by being willing to open up, you’re showing them that a greater level of intimacy’s not just ok but welcomed.
The key is to go slow. As with romantic relationships, asking for or offering too much intimacy too fast is a danger sign; it tends to be a sign of poor social calibration and emotional intelligence and that’s going to drive people away. Instead, you want to build rapport and intimacy over time, with graduated levels of sharing and openness. You’re not going to tell a stranger your deepest, darkest fears or desires, so why would you do that to someone you’re not necessarily tight with?
It’s a dance of degrees. First, you need to learn to be comfortable with vulnerability and be willing to open up just a little. Simple things like gratitude and telling your friends that you appreciate them, that you enjoy spending time with them or – if it’s been a while – that you miss hanging out with them is the start. It’s a small thing, but it’s something a lot of guys have trouble with. That little gesture – letting your friends know that you care and that they’re important to you – can be huge. It opens up the door to greater intimacies, sharing of support.
There’ll be a temptation to disqualify the intimacy, to somehow excuse it as no big deal or to not make too much of it. Resist this. That feeling is part of the social conditioning of not opening up to other men, something you’re actively trying to break. There’s nothing to be ashamed of or to wave away; you’re simply being willing to say what you actually feel instead of pretending you’re made of stone or ashamed of your feelings.
As you get more comfortable with that level of intimacy with your friends – and vice versa – then you can open up a little more. Let them in a bit more, share things that you might not share with a stranger but also isn’t strictly reserved for your closest friends or loved-ones. Be the first to offer support if you think your friends need it and to ask for help if you need it. Offering favors or doing things for them can be great ways of encouraging the friendship. Even little gestures – remembering events that are important to them, sharing links or news stories they may find interesting or relevant – can help bridge that gap and encourage your friends to open up to you.
This is where reciprocation is important; if your friends aren’t returning the same level of intimacy or behavior, then don’t push further. A friendship of one-sided intimacy won’t last. Simply keep things at that level until either they are more comfortable with it or until you realize that this may not be that kind of friendship.
It can be tricky, emotionally. By modeling the friendship you want, you’re putting yourself out there in a way that can feel uncomfortable at first. You’re opening up to rejection, to being teased by people less secure than you and to people who may be uncomfortable with open displays of emotion, themselves. But as the connections you have with your friends grow, the more natural it will feel. Soon you’ll realize you don’t have friends so much as brothers you didn’t have before.
This post was previously published on Doctornerdlove.com and is republished here with permission from the author.
Have you read the original anthology that was the catalyst for The Good Men Project? Buy here: The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want to join our calls on a regular basis, please join us as a Premium Member, today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: Istockphoto.com